Happy-Go-Lucky

chocolate ingredients
All the ingredients that make up some very Lucky truffles

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

An itinerant chocolate maker settles down

BY JAY BLOTCHER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER MAY

In the river town of Saugerties, which hums along at an agreeable pace, neither sleepy nor vibrant, numerous buildings from the 19th and early-20th century still stand along its commercial area, displaying ornamental facades. On Partition Street, one such structure is home to Lucky Chocolates, an establishment with one foot in the past and the other squarely in the present.

Like candy shoppes of yesteryear, Lucky is a joyous celebration of excess. Huge apothecary glass jars of penny candy—chocolate babies, chewy wax bottles, candy buttons, red laces, candy necklaces—line the wall shelves behind the counter. Across the room, scores of eccentric vintage-style toys—penny whistles, accordions, paddle ball, a talking pony—crowd the wall. Next to them hang bowling shirts bearing the Lucky logo. And everywhere you look, as in a Willy Wonka fever dream, there is some id-teasing edible. Lucky Chocolates offers a field day for the attention-deficient.

But deep consideration guides inventory selection. Owner Rae Stang, 61, a product of the ’70s who logged time at a commune in Maine after college, instills social responsibility into her operation. Therefore, nearly every delicacy created on the premises, from the truffles to the hand-dipped fruit, from the mint patties to the chocolate- chip cookies, is created from natural ingredients. And while Stang could use cheaper chocolate, which uses fillers and wax, she prefers to work with organic, preservative-free chocolate.

Like coffee, there is chocolate that is certified organic, but which may be harvested by poorly paid, and exploited, farmers. Stang will admit that while one can find chocolate in Europe that is both organic and free-trade, this is a far more difficult prospect in the States. Her cocoa supplies are organic and free-trade, but lack the official certification. It is a gray area, admittedly, but one that gnaws at her. If you have a few minutes, Stang will explain about chocolate makers who use enslaved South American plantation workers, analogous to the matter of blood diamonds.

“We’ve got to take a stand on that stuff and make people aware of it,” she says. “Even if it’s to the detriment of my ability to make money, I’m still going to use organic—I can’t really do anything else.” Even the bacon in the chocolate truffles displays a handmade sign to reassure the customer it “is humanely raised.”

Arresting Development

But pamphleteering is not the focal point of Lucky Chocolates. Unbridled fun and indulgence are. However, despite the bright colors and sheer overstimulation of its numerous offerings, Lucky Chocolates is not a destination exclusively for kids. Like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Lucky is a multisensory, subtextual experience for adults who crave a momentary retreat into their candy-gobbling past, but who also seek flavors that tease the adult palate.

“Our stuff isn’t all that kid-centric,” she says. “We’re more like a grown-up candy store.”

Accordingly, the handmade truffles come in chai, green tea, cardamom pistachio, passion fruit, pomegranate, (a robust) sourn lemon, Chimayo chili, strawberry balsamic, crème brûlée and tequila margarita. Among the penny candy are salty licorice varieties from Australia and the Netherlands. On another shelf are chocolates shaped like frogs, mice with licorice tails, drumsticks, guitars and violins. Chocolate barks come in 70 percent cocoa, dark almond, salted, lavender blueberry, espresso bark and white salted. The popular PMS Bar is a nerve-soothing combination of chocolate, peanut butter and caramel intended for both genders coping with inordinate stress. If your contrary nature demands healthier fare, Stang offers a variety of sugarless, gluten-free, antioxidant and even vegan choices, each showcase item as cheerily labeled as its counterparts.

Marketing gurus stress that in these competitive times a successful business should find one niche and stick to it. If Rae Stang ever got that memo, it has been filed away long ago. A combination veteran hippie and doting Jewish mother, she wants to serve and satisfy and always give you a little more than you thought you wanted when you first walked in, your arrival heralded by a cheery bell at the door. A blackboard on the wall, scrawled with 10 different hues of chalk, lists breakfast and lunch specials, which include soups (vegan corn and sweet potato today), salads, bacon and cheddar croissants, a fleet of paninis, and freshly pressed vegetable juices. Still have room? Try a Ronnybrook ice cream or homemade organic cookies. Just peckish? A porcelain dish by the cash register offers free samples of bacon-studded or violet truffles.

“I really like to feed people,” she says. “It’s the thing that’s always been true in my life. And [this job] fits the bill.”

A Rolling Stone Gathers No Chocolate

Even if Rae Stang had a keen head for names and dates—and she apologetically does not—the particulars of her rambling career history would be a challenge to recount. It is a jumble of short-term jobs, fueled as much by serendipity as wanderlust, which took her far from her birthplace of New Rochelle, New York. Apparently, hometown life fueled her initial flight; Stang felt “stifled” and “couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

She hit the road with a vengeance. Her picaresque resume includes stints as horse trainer in Arizona, art director for the LA Weekly (she went to college for graphic arts), an expatriate in Mexico during a brief marriage, and co-owner for six years of a hip Echo Park, Los Angeles, general store called Yque, whose inventory of Doc Martens shoes, cowboy boots, Guatemalan fabric, African trade beads and vintage toys drew artists and punk rockers alike. One constant along the journey was cooking. While at Marlboro College in Vermont, Stang, a self-taught chef, made meals at a macrobiotic food cooperative. Many of her subsequent jobs involved being a cook at a Wyoming ranch and at an apple orchard. She was content to stay the season and then move on.

When her father’s health began failing a few years ago, Stang found her way back East and settled in Shandaken, in a house on the Esopus River. She worked in the kitchen of Sweet Sue’s, the pancake joint in Phoenicia, then as cook in the Full Moon resort in Oliverea, before she opened the Bluebird Café in Shokan. There, she drew on her time below the border to create a Tex-Mex menu. But the enterprise, sorely underfinanced, folded in six months.

The chocolate “thing”—the generic noun is a constant in Stang’s vocabulary—first began six years ago, for a practical reason. “I was searching around for a way to get out of the hot kitchen.”

Lady Luck

In 2005, Stang took a pastry course at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, which included two weeks of crafting chocolates. She followed that with a three-month bread-baking course at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, before deciding a bakery would be too much work. The next year, on a signature whim, she decided to open a chocolate shop in her new home, situated on Route 28 in Mount Tremper.

“I just started, kind of, playing around with chocolate,” she says, “and it just grew.”

From the start, Stang sought out organic, fair-trade chocolates, at a time when it was not as well known nor as readily available. “I learned as I went along.”

Improvisation was likewise the guide for daily operations. She set up a tent in the front yard of her home with a hand-painted sign, then she began hand-dipping in the kitchen, with a tiny tempering machine used for melting and making chocolate confections, till she built a variety of 12 flavors, all in round shapes. The name of her new establishment was a tribute to her maternal grandfather. A big man in an ever-present white apron, he ran a Bronx establishment called Newmark’s Sweet Shop. Lucky was his nickname

Customers along the busy roadway would slow down, from weekend tourists to bicyclists, intrigued by the curious home operation. Stang enjoyed a steady business for several months until she crossed paths with the town building inspector. The man challenged the legality of her operation.

Stang reacquainted herself with the rules of home business. She set aside a portion of her house for the business, established a customer parking lot and attended a to town board hearing where Lucky Chocolates received a green light. But just before Valentine’s Day, traditionally the busiest season for chocolatiers, Stang was served with an order to close shop.

“This guy had a thing against me,” she says. “He just did not want it to happen.” Stang capitulated and began seeking a commercial space. The new home for Lucky was as offbeat as its creator: a former gas station and saddle shop on Route 212, between Woodstock and Saugerties, which opened later that year.

Word-of-mouth drew intrepid chocolate lovers to the store, enough to ensure brisk sales for Christmas and Valentine’s Day. However, the remote address kept traffic and sales relatively modest the other 10 months. “It was difficult.”

But for Stang, an entrepreneur accustomed to making it up as she went along, this enterprise marked great progress in her business history. “At least with that one, I had a plan,” she says. “I had a business plan. I had advisors, you know, things like that. So it was better.” Even if her business acumen needed a boost, Stang was rich with product ideas. Working with the Tea Shoppe in Woodstock, she created a line of chocolates to complement the locally made Harney & Sons teas they served, instilling each chocolate with the essence of the tea. For Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, Stang created a pecan-cashewalmond- and-chocolate concoction she dubbed “the Film Nut Bar,” even illustrating the wrapper herself.

“I’m very creative and I never lack for ideas, but they’re not always practical,” she admits. “I [have to] stop constantly trying to have a new thing every day. It’s not healthy. I mean, it’s healthy for me, but not healthy for a business.”

One of the more creative items Stang created was the Hudson Valley Box, offering 15 different chocolates, each containing a locally sourced flavor, including native raspberry, mint, strawberry balsamic and Catskill Mountain Coffee.

Chocolate City

In 2009, Stang relocated to her current Saugerties location, opening in December after a six-month renovation of a former art gallery. The new home of Lucky Chocolates was just up the street from Krause’s Chocolates, a venerable candy maker in the area since 1929. Stang insists her choice of new digs was simply circumstantial, and not meant as a challenge to her neighbor.

“I just felt like we were so different from them, and if we were up here and they were down there, I thought it would be okay,” she says. “I just felt like we have completely different clientele.”

Owner Karl Krause, the third generation of family owners of the business, still questions Stang’s decision. Today he is mixing a batch of almond toffee, his hairnet firmly in place.

“I didn’t understand why they wanted to move right next to me,” he says, stirring a copper vat filled with the mixings for a confection. “I’m established. I wouldn’t want to have to compete with me. I would go somewhere else.”

The pair ran into each other at a neighborhood wine tasting in late 2008, where both had donated chocolates. The conversation between them was polite. Stang sheepishly explained that she wasn’t trying to steal business. Krause, while admitting his initial concern, reasoned that the two offer different products for different types of customers. “We met one time and nobody killed each other,” Krause recalls with a chuckle.

Speaking of his business, that has been named the region’s best chocolate by Hudson Valley magazine every year since he took over in 2002, Karl Krause offers an unguarded personal observation.

“There’s a lot of trendy types of places that have all weird, whacky flavors…. We do our traditional things that we have always done, going back to the early-20th century. I’m satisfied with just being the best-tasting, not the trendiest or the most novelty thing.”

Stang, in turn, points out that the sign outside the Krause’s store has begun advertising flavors more in line with her offerings, such as salt-caramel and chili flavors.

“[I] realized she’s doing her thing and I’m doing my thing,” Krause says, “and hopefully we can be harmonious about it.” After decades as a roamer, Rae Stang insists that she has finally found a home.

“I’m not planning on going anywhere,” she says. “I don’t think I have that many careers left in me.”

Lucky Chocolates
115 Partition Street, Saugerties
845.246.7337
luckychocolates.com

Rae Stang and chocolate frogs
Rae Stang, owner of Lucky Chocolate, in a fleeting moment of relaxation.

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